Matters of moment, February 1984

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Specialists succeed

Britains specialist sports car industry may not seem to be in the eminent situation it was 10 years ago when the world markets were eager for the Jaguar E-type, MGB, TR, Sprite and Midget sports cars, all of which have disappeared without any real successors, but this industry has survived the recession in reasonably good shape, and more makers are now coming to the fore. At the British Motor Show in October new and comparatively inexpensive sports models will be seen on the Reliant and Panther stands, with the Lotus-Toyota due for its unveiling some time in 1985, and while these manufacturers may never have the volume capacity once enjoyed by the British Leyland combine, their presence is vital to the variety of the motoring scene.

Some five years ago a research group produced a report stating that by 1990 there would only be six or eight manufacturers left in the world, the smaller and weaker ones unable to compete with the giants. But now, as we pull out of the recession, we see that the effects were nothing like those of the Great Depression, and there is no talk today of the specialists going to the wall. In 1983 Jaguar exported more cars than they actually produced the year before, 22,141 saloons and sports cars going abroad with a showroom value of £430 million. Production was at capacity, 29,100 cars having been made by not many more workers than produced 14,000 in 1981. Sales to the States, at 15,815 cars, were 53% up on the previous year, and though the profits figure has not yet been published it is expected to be around the £30 million mark. In a year’s time the XJ40 saloon will be announced, and it will without question be much sought after, so Jaguar’s future seems assured.

Aston Martin have been through a bad patch, control changing yet again so that the North American distributors now have the major shareholding, but the enthusiasm and dedication shown at Newport Pagnell is undiminished. Victor Gauntlett told the workforce in his new-year message that 1984 could be the most successful in the company’s history, as production has now reached a record five or six cars per week. Strengthening of the home market means that production of the Vantage and Volante models again exceeds that of the luxurious Lagonda which sells predominantly in America and the Middle East.

Lotus is another company to have changed hands during 1983, following the death of Colin Chapman. David Wickins, of British Car Auctions, and Toyota have taken shareholdings which resulted in Wickins becoming chairman of the company, and his first big decision apparently was to change the concept of the Toyota powered sports car due next year, the codenumber changing from M-90 to X-100. Despite the traumas Lotus had a good year, trading at a profit, helped by the success of a new American distributorship. The production level rose by 20 per cent from 541 to 649 units, and should rise again to 800 this year.

Reliant has been through a bad patch with the Scimitar, but has been kept profitable by the Rialto three-wheeler, and is looking forward to the introduction of a totally new two-seater sports car at the NEC. They say little about it, but it will be “under 2-litres, and in the place that British sports cars used to be” according to marketing director Mr M. J. Bennett. It will be “attractive, economical, inexpensive to run, and will incorporate some new technology”, not apparently being a straight-forward glass-fibre body. We are told that the Scimitar will stay in production so long as there is a demand for it.

Panther Cars in Weybridge are expanding rapidly with the Ford-powered Kallista models, which are attractively priced with South Korean made chassis. The company is preparing to move into new premises prior to the announcement of a modern-looking sports car in October. Now on a sound financial footing, Panther looks ready to make a lot of progress in the coming months, and demand far exceeds supply.

The TVR company in Blackpool reckons that it came out of the recession at the end of 1982, sales rising from 200 to 286 units last year, and the projection is for 400 cars in 1984. Here too the home market is coming up well, but like other successful companies TVR has concentrated on exports in the past couple of years, to Singapore, America, the Middle East, South Africa, and Europe.

A new American distributor for TVR has just signed a contract for 300 cars, which means that the first quarter’s production will be exclusively for that market. The Rover Vitesse powered 350i announced last summer is much in demand, and the company is now putting on a night shift to increase the output from eight to 14 cars per week.

Small companies are by nature faster to react, and more innovative, and there abilities have served them well during the recession. It is sad that Austin-Rover no longer make a true sports car, the recession having seen to it that anything not made in large volumes is not worth bothering about, but around the world the demand is still existent, and we are happy to see that Britain’s specialist car industry is able to meet that challenge.

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